Premium-Class Service, Long Before Fliers Board
By CHRISTINE NEGRONI
TO celebrate the beginning of service between Dulles International Airport and Abu Dhabi on April 2, Etihad Airways’ chief executive, James Hogan, made the 13-hour flight to Washington to host a party for 450 people with entertainment by Harry Connick Jr.
But do not try to talk to Mr. Hogan about New York. After four years of flying out of Kennedy International Airport, Etihad is still waiting to lease space for a premium airport lounge.
Emirates Airlines of Dubai, Etihad’s competitor, has a 4,000-square-foot private waiting room overlooking the gate at Terminal 4, and business and first-class travelers can board the plane from there. This month, Delta Air Lines will open a Sky Club in the same terminal; at 24,000 square feet it will be the largest club at the airport and in the Delta system, with seating for 450 people and an additional 2,000 square feet dedicated to an outdoor deck.
Offering lavish airport services to premium-class passengers is a worldwide phenomenon.
In Istanbul, Turkish Airlines built a lounge that includes a pool table and a masseuse. In Frankfurt, Lufthansa’s first-class passengers are assigned a personal assistant; when it is time to leave the cigar lounge or dining room for the plane, they are taken by private car, without having to board with other passengers. In the home bases of Emirates and Etihad, business-class passengers get deluxe accommodations; first-class passengers, ultradeluxe.
“We believe that the comfort and convenience of dedicated lounges enables our passengers to enjoy the Emirates experience even before they have boarded the plane,” said Mohammed H. Mattar, divisional senior vice president at Emirates Airport Services. Etihad has a similar philosophy, which is why its executives are so frustrated at their lack of space in New York.
“I can’t control customs or security; some are good, some are bad, but what I can control is our touch points,” Mr. Hogan said. “So the experience in the lounge is important to us.”
Mr. Hogan complained in February that the airline was getting the runaround in New York, but by April the airline was predicting a new Etihad lounge would open at Kennedy in 2014 or 2015. “A potential space has been identified,” Niall Doheny, an Etihad spokesman, said by e-mail. JFK International Air Terminal, the company that runs Terminal 4, declined to answer questions about Etihad’s complaint.
Improving the airport experience has long been a priority for airlines with heavy passenger traffic passing through their home base en route to somewhere else, according to a report on airports by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman. “In the Middle East in particular, the newly developed hubs have based their business models around transfer passengers,” the report says, but it is also true for airlines like Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Turkish and Lufthansa. Song Hoi See, chief executive of the airport services company Plaza Premium Lounge Management Hong Kong, said American airlines came late to the game.
“The reason why the U.S. is lacking is because traffic used to be concentrated on domestic traveling,” Mr. Song said. “Before 9/11, it was like going on a bus, you get to the airport half an hour before the plane leaves. After 9/11, even domestic traveling meant passengers had to wait longer in the airport.”
Now some airlines in the United States have decided that giving passengers a comfortable place to wait gives them a competitive advantage, especially at older airports, which can be short on amenities like electrical outlets, Wi-Fi, quality food and beverages and a place to sit and work.
“Increasingly what we’re focused on is having a highly segmented space, such that there are people in there doing work, people gearing up for the day. There are people in there unwinding and doing different things,” said Tim Mapes, senior vice president for marketing at Delta, which has spent $20 million on new or renovated lounges in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as in New York at Kennedy and La Guardia Airports. It is a lot of pampering and it is not over yet. Having spent 15 years managing airport lounges that cater to the minority of travelers for whom service is more important than price, Mr. Song says the trend is still evolving.
“Now you go to the lounge and they provide hot food and shower, wellness services, pedicure, manicure and also business center services, more than printing, but secretary, meeting and videoconferencing,” he said.
Premium services can even go beyond the airport; airlines, including Lufthansa, offer limousines, and Delta is considering what kind of amenities it can offer in city centers.
“Traditional airline thinking results in traditional customer experiences,” Mr. Mapes said. “We have to be a lifeline and have customers’ backs 24/7.”